Air Force Could Lose 12,000 Vaccine Refusniks
While 96 percent of airmen are in compliance, the service is about to get smaller.
WaPo’s Alex Horton reports (“Air Force is first to face troops’ rejection of vaccine mandate as thousands avoid shots“):
Up to 12,000 Air Force personnel have rejected orders to get fully vaccinated against the coronavirus despite a Pentagon mandate, and officials say it is too late for them to do so by the Tuesday deadline, posing the first major test for military leaders whose August directive has been met with defiance among a segment of the force.
The vast majority of active-duty airmen, more than 96 percent, are at least partially vaccinated, according to data from the Air Force. But officials have warned that, barring an approved medical or religious exemption, those who defy lawful orders to be fully immunized are subject to punishment, including possible dismissal from the service, or they could be charged in the military justice system.
The challenge now confronting Air Force leaders — how to address potential large-scale dissent in the face of a top health priority that has been deeply politicized — is a bellwether for the dilemma in store across the military’s other services, which have staggered compliance deadlines ranging from the end of November to the middle of next summer and, in some cases, have experienced far greater resistance to President Biden’s mandate.
A wave of dismissals could jolt the Air Force personnel system and cause significant challenges within units that must be ready to respond to crises at a moment’s notice, especially if some vital jobs — like pilots or aircraft maintainers — are overrepresented among those who could face expulsion, said Katherine L. Kuzminski, a military policy expert at the Washington think tank Center for a New American Security. “The fact that it’s a choice leading to potential loss to readiness is striking,” she said.
It is bizarre to me not only that 12,000 airmen are refusing to follow the legal orders of their commander-in-chief but that there isn’t a uniform policy on following said orders across the Defense Department. Regardless, those refusing to comply must be discharged with prejudice; they can not be allowed an honorable discharge under these circumstances. Given that other services have much later deadlines, however, I would be inclined to grant a waiver to those who have already received their first dose of one of the two-shot vaccines long enough for them to complete the sequence and come into compliance.
As to exemptions, they’re unlikely to be granted:
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said this week that, generally, the number of religious exemptions for any vaccine is “very, very small.” The Army, which is the largest military service, has granted just one permanent medical exemption and no religious exemptions for the coronavirus vaccine, officials said. The Navy hasn’t granted any religious exemptions for any vaccine — for the coronavirus or otherwise — in the past seven years.
The religious objections have centered on the fetal cell lines used in some aspects of vaccine development, essentially reproductions of cells from abortions performed in the 1970s and 1980s. The shots themselves don’t contain the actual cells. A regimen of numerous vaccines is required upon joining the military and even more if troops are deployed overseas. Some of the required vaccines, including those against Rubella, chickenpox and hepatitis A, also were developed using similar cells.
Airmen receive counseling from leaders and medical providers when filing a medical exemption. For a religious exemption request, service members must meet with a chaplain to determine if their request was generated by a “sincerely held belief,” Stefanek said.
Information about their request is forwarded to a senior commander for consideration, Stefanek said, typically a three-star or four-star general who must weigh an individual’s request against a unit’s mission requirements.
Even if the commander believes an airman has made a sincere request, it may be denied if it is believed the unvaccinated airman could harm unit cohesion or make it too difficult to work close together, Stefanek said.
This strikes me as the right policy. No “sincerely-held belief” should trump the health of the rest of the unit.
This one is a bit curious, however:
Historically, most administrative exceptions have been made for service members close to a planned departure, she said. Airmen who secured approved retirement or separation by Nov. 1, with an exit by April 1, are not subject to the vaccine mandate, she said.
On the one hand, this seems humane. Why force people about to get out to comply? On the other, I can’t offhand think of other examples where “I’m going to be out in five months” is an excuse for violating the lawful orders of the commander-in-chief and Secretary of Defense.
UPDATE: I meant to note that, from what I’m hearing, this is creating a major administrative burden across DoD. Almost everyone is in compliance but even 3-4 percent noncompliance is a whole lot of people filing for exemptions on religious or other grounds that have to be reviewed. They’ll almost universally be rejected but it’s a major manpower burden to go through the process for such a large number.